A Socratic Examination of Justice and Moral Authority

Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated that, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty…in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”  In evaluating what, precisely, justice is, it is necessary to examine the role that civil obedience plays in its attainment.  Should the dutiful citizen abide by the law at all times, even when the decree of the state is contrary to the moral pursuits of that individual?  Or is injustice proper grounds for disobedience?  I thought it might be interesting to analyze these questions in the context of Socrates, as he has contributed much to our modern understanding of law and morality, and most students (I assume) have read Plato’s Apology and the Crito.

Socrates is unwavering in his belief that subjects must always adhere to the word of the commanding authority if justice is to prevail.  It should be noted, however, that those who yield legal authority, like all men, are fallible.  Observance of true justice is, then, dependent upon the judgment of those things of a higher authority.  In Socrates’ mind, there is an innate hierarchy of rule.  A ruler’s legal enactment should readily be followed if justice is to be achieved – unless, of course, his or her word challenges that of an even higher authority (in Socrates day and age, this would refer to the gods, for example).  In such a position, the subject of the state would be committing an injustice were he or she to blindly pledge his or her allegiance to the state’s leader, as the subject would be demonstrating his or her impiety.  However, in modern society, we should assume that the highest authority is the state; the separation of church and state has, more or less, mandated that this be the case.

During the trial in Plato’s Apology, the jurors tell Socrates that, “We will let you go, but on this condition: that you no longer spend time in this investigation or philosophize; and if you are caught still doing this, you will die” (Apology 29c-d).  Socrates, a man of unfaltering conviction, replies: “I, men of Athens, salute you and love you, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breathe and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing, and I will exhort you and explain this to whomever of you I happen to meet, and I will speak just the sorts of things I am accustomed to” (Apology 29d).

Here, Socrates refuses to abide by the verdict set forth by the jury, and, by relation, the state.  It can be argued that Socrates is, in fact, arguing that he is endowed with the right to disobey the decree of a higher authority.

It is imperative to recognize that Socrates is not dissuaded from submitting to the decrees of the state—in fact, he ardently believes that obedience is required from every Athenian in order for justice to be achieved.  He reminds the jury that, “When the rulers whom you elected to rule me stationed me in Potidaea and Amphipolis and at Delium, I stayed then…and ran the risk of dying like anyone else…” (Apology 28e).  It is clear Socrates believes that as a citizen of Athens, he must obey whatever it is that the state requires of him, so long as it is just and in accordance with those virtues set forth by a higher authority.  Socrates is committed to the highest justice.  Therefore, we should ask whether our own individual sense of morality serves as sufficient justification to disobey the state in modern society.  Does our own sense of morality represent the highest authority?

In Plato’s Crito, Socrates establishes a foundation that necessitates obedience to the Laws that are responsible for keeping the city in a state of sustained order.  While Socrates may have been sent to prison and condemned to death as a result of societal injustice (or for refusing to submit to the state), he here reaffirms, parallel to social contract theory, his submission to those Laws that inherently bind every citizen to the city in which they have been given the opportunity to prosper. Socrates asks, “Does it seem possible to you for a city to continue to exist, and not to be overturned, in which the judgments that are reached have no strength, but are rendered ineffective and are corrupted by private men?” (Crito 50b).

While this may appear contradictory to his words in the Apology, Socrates has had his opportunity to persuade the jury.  The decree may not be “right” (a matter of personal opinion), but it is “just” (a universal truth) for Socrates to obey.  If he were to dishonor the decision of the state, he would be destroying the city that has provided so much to him, and this, certainly, is an injustice.  If he had prior decided that the laws of the state were contrary to his perception of justice he could have left Athens, and in doing so, would have broken with his obligation to abide by the legal enactments of the state.  Socrates states, “That it is not pious to do violence to mother or father, and still less by far to the fatherland than to them” (Crito 51b).  Socrates must, therefore, be executed for justice to be attained.

Socrates, in both the Apology and Crito, submits to the decree of a higher authority; one must remember that it is sometimes acceptable to break from state decree to act in accordance with justice.  The philosophical issue that stems from Socrates reasoning today is whether our own moral beliefs can justify disobedience to the state.  I am confident that Socrates would state that they do, in fact.  Virtue must always be adhered to.  If the state fails to act in accordance with morality, then we have an obligation to disobey.  In this regard, Socrates doctrine seems to parallel the conclusions drawn by Fuller – morality should, indeed, be the law’s end.


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